It's 20 years since a small group of winemakers took a huge risk in the remote Spanish mountains. Today, as GILES FALLOWFIELD discovers, the Priorato DO is flourishing
Although little more than 20km from the Catalan Mediterranean coastal plain, Priorato is remote. Few decent roads penetrate this wildly beautiful region whose steep-sided mountains rise quickly to over 1,100m, and travel between its scattered villages can be laborious. A decade ago the region was suffering from depopulation, as its inhabitants gave up the struggle of ekeing out a living on its poor, slate soils. At the time, it was perhaps best known for two things: its unattractively tough, dark and highly alcoholic red wines, and Priorato de Scala Dei, the 12th-century Carthusian monastery from which the region takes its name.
The monastery, once home to 60 monks and 100 lay brothers, may be half ruined but its fine position, with a backdrop of sheer cliffs that make up the highest part of the Montsant range, is reason enough to visit it. As legend has it, this is where a shepherd boy, out tending his flock one night, woke up to see angels descending a celestial ladder. Hence its name: ‘Priory of the stairway of God’. The whole site has a haunting, otherworldly atmosphere.
The vinous reputation of this area has altered radically in little more than a decade. No longer is Priorato associated with dull, deeply alcoholic red wines – though a few of these still exist. Today it is the source of some of Spain’s highest quality reds – a remarkable transformation achieved by a small group of like-minded individuals, some of whom had no training in winemaking.
The seeds for change were sown 20 years ago when the group bought eight plots of land high in the Siurana valley, around the village of Gratallops. They set about restoring and repairing some of the old neglected vineyards, principally planted with the poorly regarded Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignan) varieties. They replanted both, particularly Garnacha, on some of the best sites. Their aim? To show they were capable of great things in the right location, in the almost black, slatey Llicorella soils where yields are naturally low. They also introduced new varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot, and in some places drip irrigation systems were installed to help establish young vines in this difficult terrain. Because of these new methods and varieties, the first wines made communally in the specially-built Gratallops cooperative winery in the late 1980s were excluded from the Priorato DO. Given that they were striking out in an entirely new direction in an effort to produce serious red wines, they didn’t mind.
When the resulting wines quickly began to receive critical acclaim and win medals at national and international competitions, their methods were vindicated. According to one of the original pioneers, Carles Pastrana of Costers del Siurana, ‘When we first bought land here in the mid-1980s there was nothing, and everyone thought we were mad. Everybody laughed at us, especially the institutions, as we set about surveying old vineyard slopes, repairing walls and terraces, clearing stones and building access paths, which resulted in the loss of nearly half the productive vineyard. ‘In Gratallops itself,’ he continues, ‘we replanted all the vineyards except the Cariñena which was 50 years old. There was very little old Garnacha left in the area. After phylloxera hit the region, people tended to replant with Cariñena, because it was easier to grow and higher yielding, not for reasons of quality. We do have a small plot of 80-year-old Garnacha but the rest we planted ourselves 15 or 16 years ago.’
‘We never thought success would come so fast,’ admits Pastrana. ‘The first vintage of Clos de l’Obac (1989) made it into the top 150 wines in the world. But 20 years is nothing. Keeping the quality at a high level in the DO is the issue today.’
At the end of the 1980s there were around 10 wine producers in Priorato, but Pastrana estimates there are now at least 60 cellars within the DO. The success of the original Gratallops group has brought investment in, with new boutique wineries springing up all over the region. But he is a little sceptical about some of the newcomers and concerned that people may be trying to cash in on their achievements, to the detriment of the Priorato’s image.
The survivors of the original group – Alvaro Palacios, Mas Martinet, René Barbier and Costers del Siurana – are now independent wineries, still based in Gratallops. They remain the star producers within the Priorato DO, although other high-quality wines are being made. René Barbier and Costers del Siurana, separated only by a party wall through the middle of the original co-operative winery, are a good illustration of the contrasting styles among the region’s best. The reds of Costers del Siurana are more silken and elegant than powerful – although you could not say that Miserere, a five-way blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Merlot, Garnacha and Cariñena, lacks concentration. In flagship red Clos l’Obac, Syrah takes the place of Tempranillo, adding an attractive streak of spice. Dolc de l’Obac, a mix of Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, with a touch of fortification (16.5% abv) and more than a passing resemblance to vintage port, is something else.
The wines of René Barbier, sold under the Clos Mogador label, are altogether earthier, more rustic, chunky wines, and more akin to the southern Rhône, from where the Barbier family originally hails. The blend is made up of Syrah, Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a dollop of Cariñena. From the 1999 vintage onwards, they increased the percentage of Cariñena and cut down the Cabernet. For René Barbier, it’s the ‘20% or so of Syrah in the blend which marks Clos Mogador out. Few other vineyards have more than 5% of this variety.’ Clearly he’s a great fan of Syrah. The 1995 vintage is, in his words, ‘a monster and still needs a lot more time. You should decant it two days before you are going to drink it,’ he advises. ‘It would have been so much better if we could make it today, with the improvements in the winery and in our knowledge.’ Modest, from the man who helped teach the others how to make wine when they first started up. Like Pastrana, Barbier feels the increased investment from outside the region is a double-edged sword. ‘Great vines have produced moderate to good wines, but with the right viticulture they can make great wine. Viticulture goes to pot when the commercial wine industry gets involved – it doesn’t lend itself to big business interests. It has been a problem in Rioja.’
Alvaro Palacios, the producer of Priorato’s most celebrated and expensive red wine, Clos l’Ermita, left his father’s business in Rioja to set up in risky Gratallops. Perhaps surprisingly, he is more relaxed than Barbier and Pastrana about the influx of outsiders, notably the three giants of the Spanish wine industry: Torres, Freixenet and Codorniu. ‘The Torres family has always stood for quality,’ he says. ‘It makes 22 million bottles of wine and still produces very good wine at the top level.’ He also thinks that Codorniu and Freixenet have come to Priorato ‘to make their top wine, a top of the pyramid showpiece.’
Palacios’ vineyards, like his wines, are at the extreme of Priorato production. Steeper slopes, higher up, with lower yields than anyone else – as low as 500g of grapes per vine. He is also good on detail and clearly knows his vineyards. With the 1999 and 2000 vintages of his least expensive red, Les Terrasses (a shade over £12), it’s hard not to be impressed by the concentration. ‘Les Terrasses is a very low price for the quality,’ he says without sounding at all immodest. ‘But I didn’t come here from Rioja to do this. I came here to make one of the best wines in the world, something unique, concentrated with great richness and finesse.’ The pricing of Clos l’Ermita is obviously a sensitive issue but, unlike in Bordeaux where Palacios trained, it ‘goes up or down depending on the quality’. The 2000 vintage ex-cellars price, a significantly better vintage than 1999, went up to more than £80 a bottle, partly to calm down post-release speculation, but it’s still hard to secure a bottle.
Palacios, who fell out with his father when he left Rioja, was glad to make his peace with him before he died a couple of years ago. ‘In the end,’ he says, ‘he was convinced about what I was doing here.’ And most would no doubt agree.
Les Terrasses 1999 £12.34; C&B
Finca Dofi 1998 £39.36; C&B
Finca Dofi 1999 £32.31; C&B
L’Ermita 1999 £141; C&B
Clos Mogador 1997 £19.95; WSo;
Clos Mogador 1998 £246.75 for 12, Brb
Gueta-Lupia 1998 £181.48 for 6; BuA
Costers del Siurana Miserere 1997 £22.50; L&S
Clos l’Obac 1997 £26.50; L&S
Dolc de l’Obac 1996 & 1997£36.50 & £39, both 50cl; L&S
Mas d’en Compte 1998 £126.90 for 6; BuA
Mas d’en Gil Coma Vella 1998 £18.01; Bib
Rosa Bartolome Vernet
Primitiu de Bellmunt 1999 £174.43 for six bottles; BuA
Places to stay
Restaurant El Pigot, 7 Trinquet, Arboli.
Tel: +34 977 816063
Hostal Sport, 6 Miquel Barcelo, Falset.
Tel: +34 977 830078
33 rooms and prices from e54; it also has its own restaurant with an impressive wine list.
Restaurant La Font, 2 Consolacio, Gratallops.
Tel: +34 977 839279.
This restaurant also has inexpensive rooms.
Restaurant El Rebost de la Cartoixa, 15 Rambla Cartoixa, Scala Dei.
Tel: +34 977 82 71 49